Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Nights on the big lake

















Just after sunset, the Canadas flight in low from the east, a dozen squadrons of fifteen or so. They usually splash down in front of me, but tonight hold height and make for the distant shallows for their twilight, raucous conference. Maybe they can sense me here, well hidden as I am. A wispy, feathering breeze pushes the water towards me, but it’s calm enough to see reflections of the low, broken night cloud and a precocious Venus, always at the front of the astral queue. Midweek, everyone else goes home before now. Even the courting couple don’t turn up in their car on the far shore at dusk: perhaps her unbearable husband got home early.

Last night it was so clear I gave up counting the stars. At dusk a big pike went on the prowl, massive slashes at the silvered surface as she engulfed some hapless fodder fish. Only I know her habits. Three hours into the dark, the other big fish found me and beat me again. When I was getting ready to leave, my headlamp switched on as I gathered up all the gear, the reel on the last rod that I’d left fishing for itself screamed into life. I stumbled, she dropped the bait, I cursed.

I’m back yet again at dusk: it’s still now, flat steely water with just the big flock squawking like stock-market traders, an owl screeching in the copse, water voles fidgeting through the undergrowth, some unfavoured hound howling far out in the night. And I’m prepared. Huge baits tonight. On the top of the gravel works tower, a red aircraft beacon flashes once a second, but the planes I see winking across the sky are maybe a couple of miles up climbing out of Stansted and Norwich, deriding the static stars.

Then, staring hard into the dark, I can just make out a series of sublime head and tail rises as one, then another big, wary, old fish porpoises, moving towards my baited pitch. And then, they are here. By the dim light of the red cycle lamp, I watch the bobbins hanging from the lines. After so many nights, I ought to be less tense about the arrival of the big fish but I shake from the adrenalin as the swirls get so close. The old tiger hunters reckoned you had to avoid thinking about the prey at such times, but it’s impossible. My arthritic old dog sleeps on, always a bad sign. I can’t hold my breath for much longer.


Then the bobbin on the right-hand rod lifts an inch, pauses, climbs slowly to the butt ring – big fish. Twice this has happened in the last month, twice they snapped the rod like a stick of uncooked spaghetti. This time, I lift the rod and far out in the lifeless water an eerie,immense force tries to pull my arm off, thumping and running fast towards the snags and brambles. I turn her and hold on for ten, maybe fifteen minutes as she runs and bores deep, testing my gear and my resolve for that one flaw that she knows has beaten so many others before me, until at last she wallows and comes to the beach where I slide the big net under her, grasp the mesh with both hands and heave my leviathan ashore.

Back up the bank I admire the amber eye, the olive crosshatched flank and those enormous grey fins for a few delicious, boyhood-echoing seconds, before creeping forward and releasing her gently at the water’s edge. She surges away into the depths, drenching me with spray, leaving huge, churning vortices at the surface. Three hours later, the bobbin goes again but, still high, over-confident, I miss the fish. I drive home down empty, monochrome lanes, already planning just one more night on the big lake.

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